Being an Athlete is a 24/7 Job: Making Good Choices

“Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
~Benjamin Franklin


The biggest difference between being an athlete and having any other job/hobby is that, as athletes, every single choice we make affects our performance. We can’t eat a hamburger and fries on our lunch break and expect to perform our best when we go back to the gym. We can’t stay out all night at a party, and not expect there to be consequences. We don’t get to clock out at the end of the day and pick up where we left off tomorrow.

Everything an athlete does, from sleep to food choices, and even medicine, has a bearing on how well our minds and bodies will perform. Given that being an athlete is a 24/7 endeavour, it is extremely important to make good choices, and be mindful of how the decisions we make will affect our performance and our careers. Living in the moment and being spontaneous is definitely fun, but not when it can have negative consequences for the future.

Top Choices Athletes Make that Affect Performance

1. Rest

Getting enough sleep is crucial for an athlete to perform their best. According to Fatigue Science, getting adequate sleep leads to:

• Improved reaction times
• Reduced injury rates, and improved overall health
• Longer playing careers
• Better accuracy and faster sprint times
• Fewer mental errors

Check out their article, “5 areas sleep has the greatest impact on athletic performance,”for a more in-depth explanation of these 5 points, and this article to see how much some of the world’s top athletes sleep each night.

It’s not always fun to go to bed early (FOMO, anyone?), and for those who struggle with time management, it can be a shock to look at the clock and realize that it’s already midnight. Where did the night go? It is worth going to bed early, though, if it means cutting down on injuries and having a much longer career. Often, getting enough sleep is a choice, and it might be beneficial to set an alarm on your phone to remind you to head to bed if this is something you struggle with.

Personally, if I don’t get at least 8 hours of sleep at night, I feel weird. 7 hours 59 minutes is not enough! I have come to learn that 9-10 hours per night is my sweet spot. Anywhere in this range, and I wake up feeling refreshed and ready to take on anything that comes my way that day.

If you aren’t sure what your ideal amount of sleep is, try keeping a sleep journal for several weeks. When you wake up in the morning, jot down how many hours of sleep you got. Before heading to bed that night, take some notes on how you felt that day, how you felt during training, and what your energy levels were like. Look for consistencies on days where you felt great, and work to get that much sleep on a regular basis.

2. Fuel

Athletes’ bodies are well-trained machines, and should be treated as such. This means we need to give our bodies the best fuel to keep everything functioning at a top level. As athletes, we burn a ton of calories over the course of the day, so it is equally important to remember to consume enough calories so that our bodies don’t break down. Eat healthy, and eat often.

Consuming a well-balanced diet of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats is a critical component of recovery. Eating well also reduces the risk of injury, and improves focus, among other things. Eating a rainbow of colours by incorporating different fruits and vegetables into a meal is a good way to increase your nutrient intake. Burning a lot of calories also means that we need to put more calories into our bodies to avoid breakdown. Make sure to eat 3 complete meals everyday, including a good breakfast. Snacking often, especially before and after a practice or workout, is a good way to make sure that we have enough energy to make it through the day.

I will be the first one to say that I would much rather eat pizza than a kale salad. I love pizza, and while I do enjoy kale, let’s be real…. it’s just not the same. When it comes to deciding which one to have for dinner, though, the choice is easy. I value my recovery time, and I want to feel great in order to perform my best everyday. Kale for the win!

I’m not saying that I never treat myself. I definitely do. The important thing is to make good nutrition a habit and a priority. After a while, it becomes second nature to gravitate towards healthy, nutrient-dense foods because they give us the building blocks we need to perform at a high level. Having a treat every now and then is ok when the majority of our diet is healthy. Moderation is key.

3. Recovery

Everyone likes to get a massage to release tired muscles, but not all recovery is as easy as laying on a table and relaxing. A lot of recovery involves exercises that are much less enjoyable, such as ice baths, preventative exercises, stretching, hydration, etc. Training on the court is very important, but taking time to recover and take care of your body is equally important. Following an adequate recovery practice helps athletes avoid injury, and helps us return from injury quicker if one does occur. Recovery takes time, and there are probably a dozen things you would rather do before and after practice. It is a good habit to start when you are young, though, because when you really need it (especially as you get older), you will be glad you made the choice to do it early.

I have always been mindful of recovery and taking care of my body, but it really became ingrained in my routine in university. Our pre and post-practice routines help lay the foundation for my recovery for the rest of my career. I always make sure to get to practice early to go through my stretching and movement routine, and I do shoulder and hip exercises to prevent any injuries. After practice, I do a long cool-down with stretching and foam rolling, and if it’s available, I will do an ice bath. A couple times per week I go in to see my physio/chiropractor. He does ART (active release therapy) on some of my problem areas, and I get adjusted to keep everything in alignment. I also make sure that I am drinking water all day long to stay hydrated.

Recovery practices take a lot of time, but I have been playing both indoor and beach volleyball with zero rest for over 4 years now with no serious injuries (knock on wood), and I am 30 years old. I truly believe that it is because I am diligent in taking care of my body, and listening to what it needs. Often, people fail to take recovery seriously until it is too late, at which point they wish they had taken care of themselves sooner. Don’t be one of those athletes.

4. Medicine/Drugs

As you keep progressing in your sport, there will come a day when you will be drug tested. As annoying or humbling as it may be, it is necessary to ensure Fair Play in sports. When that day comes, anything that enters your bloodstream, including supplements, medications, recreational drugs, etc. can show up on a drug test. To make sure that you have a long, successful career, it is important to know exactly what you are putting in your body, and if it is worth it. The full list of prohibited substances can be found here.

I have known several athletes over the years who have tested positive for a banned substance, and it is no laughing matter. Some were forced to step away from the sport for 2 years, and some were never able to recover their career after their ban was over.

I have been drug tested more times than I can count, and they have tested both urine and blood. I am very diligent in recording absolutely everything I take, and checking every single active ingredient against the WADA Prohibited List because I value my career. My career is my responsibility, and mine alone.

Next time you have a choice to make in this area, I encourage you to think about your performance, and the possible implications it could have on your future. It’s not something to play around with.

There are many choices that athletes are confronted with everyday, and I have only highlighted a few of the big ones. It is a real challenge to make the right choices day in and day out, but the athletes who do are the ones who are able to see big improvements in their performance, and have long careers to enjoy injury-free. Do you have any other examples of tough choices athletes have to make everyday? What practices do you follow to reach your max performance?

xo, Sarah



About the Author: Olympian Sarah Pavan, is a Canadian indoor & beach volleyball player, who most recently represented her country on the golden beaches of Rio. Sarah has been playing indoor volleyball for over twenty years, and has been representing Canada a the elite level since 2001.  Follow Sarah on her Instagram, on Twitter and online.